On the surface, this series deals with the adventures of an American journalist named Miriam who discovers that she is part of a clan of worldwalking merchants from an alternate medieval North America settled by Norse colonists. She has the ability to walk between her world (which is almost, but not quite, the same as modern-day America) and that of the so-called Gruinmarkt. She has to survive contact with the hereditary aristocracy of her family and the efforts of the American authorities to shut down the operations of the Clan (which makes most of its money by acting as drug traffickers smuggling contraband between locations in Miriam's world by picking it up, disappearing into the Gruinmarkt, taking the goods where they need to go, and then reappearing in Miriam's world once again.)
But things quickly get much, much more complicated than that.
Turns out there are three alternate worlds, not two. And then there are more. Miriam sees the weaknesses in the economic model of the Clan just as the U.S. uncovers what the Clan is and what it is up to and decides to shut them down. At the same time, there's a revolution taking place in world three, one where the English colonies never gained independence (until now). This world is at a late Industrial Revolution level of technological development but with a very restrictive constitutional monarchy in charge.
Stross uses this set-up on one level to compare and contrast the social, economic, and political differences between three different stages of historical development: late medieval, Industrial Revolution, and modern high-tech. In my view you get the heaviest economic comparisons between the modern world and the Industrial Revolution one and the strongest social comparisons between the modern world (via the character of Miriam) and the medieval one. Political comparisons crop up in both.
The key to the entire series is that Miriam's appearance is the first domino that begins to upset the status quo in the North America of three different worlds, leading to social disruption and violence ranging in scale from the very personal to the very public and massive.
Stross introduces a really wide range of characters. I think he's to be complimented for having so many smart, capable female characters in the modern and medieval societies (this is much less evident in the Industrial Revolution culture). The economic and political theories cropping up in the stories remind me in some ways of Ian McLeod's work, except that Stross's personal political-economic leanings are much less clear, whereas McLeod throws his hat in pretty clearly with the socialists and communists.
Stross does a very good job of keeping the action moving briskly in spite of the undercurrent of intellectual concepts. There are passages where the storyline is almost dizzying in the knowledge that Stross displays as he jumps from modern government and military joint task force operations complete with all the jargon and lingo to medieval marriage brokering to theories about how the worldwalking ability works in terms of biology and physics.
I find all the books to be a fast, engaging read. In this one, a civil war in the medieval world comes to an apparent(?) climax with the unintentional assistance of a black ops government program in the modern America, which in turn leads to a new role for Miriam, a new movement within the Clan that is trying to break its old customs and install a new economic model, and a deadly state of war between two societies that on a fundamental level fail to understand each other. As a backdrop to this, the revolution is fully underway in the Industrial Age world and a fourth world offers tantalizing and frightening hints at the possible origins and nature of the worldwalking ability.
The positives are:
- Fast pacing, very believable details of intelligence operations, espionage, criminal organizations, small-unit tactics, firefights, and political infighting
- Interesting socioeconomic ideas and comparisons--the setup allows for very different cultures and economies to exist literally right next to each other with a deus ex machina that allows members of each to interact and comment upon the other in a limited form.
- A number of very engaging characters, including Miriam, Brilliana, Olga, Iris, Duke Angbard, Erasmus, and Huw. And a number of people you'll love to hate, including Dick Cheney. Seriously (though he hasn't shown up in person yet, just as a force behind the scenes.)
However, the novels share some shortcomings.
- They end as cliffhangers. This can be very frustrating when you've got to wait a year or more to read the next book in the series.
- There are a LOT of characters and subplots to keep track of, enough to be confusing even if this was one big novel (like an Neal Stephenson opus) rather than five shorter novels.
- Characters and entire subplots (like the mysterious Lost Family of the Clans, who I didn't even mention in this novel because they appear a couple of times to move the plot along, act a bit mysterious, and then disappear) appear in one novel and then disappear for most of the next, making it even harder to follow.
I like these books much more than the Jennifer Morgue series from Stross, which deals with an British intelligence agency that mixes mathematics with magic while facing supernatural threats clearly derived from the Cthulu Mythos. I just these novels more interesting and accessible and the characters a bit easier to relate to. And compared to Stross's far future science fiction, the concepts in the Merchant Princes series are MUCH easier to digest, if a bit less, well, revolutionary in concept.